I finally decided to go to Upper Boulder Lake this weekend to attempt Peak “Z Prime” and Peak “Z”. I wisely decided to take a rest the weekend before so I felt fresh and was excited about visiting this remote area. This was actually my second solo backpack into the Gores, the earlier one being a climb of Outpost Peak and the connecting ridge leading to the pass between Pitkin and Booth valleys. The trailhead for Boulder Lake is, like many other destinations on the eastern side, the Rock Creek trailhead. This trailhead is about 7 miles north of Silverthorne. There’s a street sign that marks it. The first part of the road is dirt, but is very smooth. After a couple of miles, there’s a well-marked left-hand turn that leads to the trailhead. This part of the road is a bit rougher but my little sports car could handle it easily, but at the same time, I winced as I went over some of the bumpier sections.
This day was rather overcast and the cloud level was quite low, maybe around 12,500 feet. So, the upper sections of most of the mountains were engulfed in thick rain clouds. I threw on my backpack and headed out. About a third of a mile down the wide and smooth trail, the Gore Range trail intersects where I’d take a right to head for the Boulder Creek trail. Before I got there, however, a rain shower came. It quickly became a pretty significant downpour so I sought shelter underneath a thick tree. I took off my backpack and waited about fifteen minutes for the rain to abate. The Gore Range trail runs laterally along the lefthand side of the range, entirely within the trees. Because of this orientation, the trail undulates over ridges, one after the other. So, you may find yourself hiking a lot of elevation, but generally, your net increase is not much at all! I passed a couple of side trails on the way to the Boulder Creek trailhead. The first is the abandoned wagon trail. The western trail leads to an alternate route of Keller Mountain; I have no idea how far the eastern one goes. The next trail parallels Pebble Creek. This trail is, like many trails on this side, is cut off by private property.
After ascending up on to the ridge separating Rock Creek and Boulder Creek, I began a long and steep descent down to the Boulder Creek trail junction. Actually, the trail on the map is not correct. The trail is now located well south of the true branch of Boulder Creek, and as you’re hiking west along this trail, you can hear Boulder Creek roaring on your right, on the opposite side of a small rise. It’s not far at all to Boulder Lake. Before getting there, the terrain reminded me of southern Alabama! The trail was very flat and composed of a gritty, sandy, reddish dirt. And the foliage around consisted of southern pines and other scrubby-looking plants. The lake reminded me of the Stewart Creek drainage near San Luis Peak – lots of flat, marshy land with thick swampy grass growing. This is apparently a haven for fishermen; I saw a few in various spots along the lake and the creek as it meandered through the marshy terrain. I took a short break here at the lake and took some pictures. Most of the peaks were shrouded in clouds.
I spied the trail leaving the lake on the right-hand side and headed out along it. According to my map and most of my sources, the trail indeed ended near the second meadow so I had been trying mentally prepare myself for a difficult and long bushwhack to Upper Boulder Lake. The trail got immediately rougher as I passed the lake, but generally was a good trail. It roughly paralleled the right-hand side of the creek. After a couple of miles, I arrived at the meadow. The trail descended to run directly alongside the creek. I followed it a little farther, crossed the creek on a log, then followed the trail for another hundred yards to a nice campsite at the edge of the meadow where the trail indeed ended. Something told me, however, that there must be a trail heading up to the lake somewhere. I went through the campsite to where the creek cut back but saw nothing but very dense plants and running water; no trail there. I went back to the edge of the meadow and headed to the left (south) and found a small passage through some flowers and plants that appeared to be nothing more than a widening of the plants where a deer had probably passed. I followed this “trail” for about 100 feet and found a trail! This trail ended up taking me all the way to the lake and was generally pretty good. It pretty much followed the creek on the lefthand side the entire way. There were a few “gotchas” though:
Not long after getting on the trail, the trail squeezed between a large mossy cliff on the left side and the creek. The trail then followed right along the creek for about a hundred yards. This section was kind of eerie in the weather this day. It was very dark, the rocks were moist and mossy, the leafy plants were dark green, and the passageway was really narrow. It was an eerie landmark to remember on the way out. After about 100 yards though, the trail takes an easy-to-miss turn to the left, leading straight up a gully to another meadow where the trail starts again. If you find yourself on this section of the trail then find yourself at a dead end, back up and look for a spot to get up above the cliffs. If I remember correctly, the trail and the creek are fairly level for a while. Then, of course, the trail gets nasty again and starts traversing above more cliffs above the creek. Not long after, I saw two waterfalls – one on the main creek, and another from a small tributary dumping into the creek. I looked at the map and noticed that there were waterfalls notated on the map. I thought that I was perhaps fairly close to the lake, in which event, I would have been delightfully suprised and how brief this section felt. However, after about the eighth waterfall, I realized that I wasn’t quite sure exactly where I was! Also, I encountered three or four little rain showers as I hiked. Most of the time they warranted I stopp for shelter.
The only place where the trail truly ended for me was as I crossed over to the other side of the creek and then ended up at the base of an impassible wall. There was a waterfall blasting through a chink in the wall (left). At this point, I was genuinely worried that the trail had ended for good. There were downed trees everywhere, cliffs, super thick plants, and a rushing creek – definitely not easy terrain and atypical for Colorado. I figured I’d have to go over to the left hand side of the wall and look for a way through. According to the map, there was nothing on the right. I tenuously crossed the rushing creek (“Man, I’d better not fall”, I thought), took a picture of the falls, and then spied a small gully leading up above the cliffs. The gully was a classic Gore Range gully – very solid and steep, full of grass and plants. As I started climbing up, I thought that this may be a trail. Sure enough, as I emerged on the top, I saw a trail winding along. Alright! I continued on and enjoyed another load of waterfalls along the way.
Another “gotcha” on the trail was at maybe the second patch of talus. At that point, the trail entered talus, and therefore became impossible to follow. The trick is to exit the talus as soon as you can and cross a small tributary over a log to a great little campsite that features a placid pool fed by a small waterfall. After looking around here for a couple minutes, I found the trail. Again, it was on the left-hand side of the creek. I continued on. After passing some more waterfalls, the forest became less dense and changed to a sub alpine forest. At this point, I knew I was getting close. Up ahead I saw a giant waterfall. Well, actually, this was a Colorado waterfall, which is almost never a true vertical drop. This fall, which was obviously the one on the map, probably dropped a grand total of 200 feet over steep cataracts. It’s pretty awesome. At this point, the trail was becoming much more faint and the part that I was able to follow did not move very close to the falls. Up above the falls, the trail was almost imperceptible, but I was able to make out a large flat area up ahead – the lake! Finally, I made it.
I walked around a while, looking for campsites. I picked a spot on the north side of the lake, right next to the small tributary coming off of the higher lake to the north. Ormes calls this lake “Secret Lake”. I thought about camping up there but I wasn’t about to hike up another 500 feet. This lake would do nicely. Upper Boulder Lake (below) is an absolutely giant lake. It was only 3 in the afternoon so I set up my camp and relaxed on the shores reading my book . I started dinner around 6pm and after I finished it, the biggest rainstorm of the day moved in and dumped loads of water all around me. Fortunately, the large tree that I was camped next to kept me and my gear dry. My socks and boots, however, were already soaked from hiking through so much wet foliage on the trip in, so they were unable to dry. The rain fell for another hour and I was able to finish my book, about 100 pages worth!
As the rain stopped, the sun began setting. It was really pretty. I wanted to take a picture but I had to hurry to the other side of the lake. As I was hiking over there, my feet got even more wet and by the time I’d arrived, the sunset had ended. I didn’t get any pictures but it was still awesome to witness. Keller Mountain was a giant orange wall above me. It was so big that I couldn’t even come close to containing half of it in my camera view! I took a dusk shot of the lake (right), hiked around a bit more, then headed back to camp to turn it. I struggled to make a small fire, but finally got one going. By the time I was done drying out my socks and other items, it was about 10pm so I turned in. I slept great.
I woke up around 6 and enjoyed a nice sunrise above the lake. My socks had dried out reasonably well and I dressed quickly and ate a small breakfast. I then headed out. Immediately, right outside my campsite, I had to wade through thick grass and flowers, covered in water. I got wet fast. My first objective was to get to Secret Lake. There’s a very faint trail on the right side of the small stream leading down to Upper Boulder Lake. I followed it. The trail was very intermittent but I kept to within a hundred feet of the creek and made it up to the lake in a short amount of time. This is another really pretty lake. It has great views but there is very limited camping. What few spots there are happen to attract lots of moisture. So, it was definitely good that I camped down at Upper Boulder Lake. I meandered my way through the trees, among the rocks, and past a set of tarns. At this point I decided to contour around and hike to the base of Peak “X” where I’d follow the shelf over to the small saddle between Peak “X” and Peak “Z”. I saw a few deer along the way. Up here, there are no trails, and I’m sure that the trail I followed to get to Secret Lake was an animal trail.
There are lots of nice tarns and creeks up here. I climbed up steep grass underneath Peak “X” and then traversed east along this high alpine shelf. There are a couple of small lakes here. The one at the far end feeds a nice ribbon fall coming off of Peak “Z Prime”. Although I stayed fairly high, hugging the high talus, it is definitely best to hike the easiest terrain straight to the far tarn under Peak “Z Prime”, then start heading up. Anyway, I quickly climbed the talus field under the ridge which turned into grassier slopes the higher it went. After a while I was on the ridge and could see into the south Slate Creek drainage. The north side of Peak “Z” was completely devoid of vegetation and I found that this was the easier route up to the saddle between “Z” and “Y”. The saddle between these two peaks is a nice high alpine grassway. I decided to climb up Peak “Z” first, which consisted of about a 300 foot scramble. Peak “Z Prime” was the highpoint of a thin ridge in the opposite direction. Peak “Z” was an easy talus scramble until just below the summit when I encountered some 45 degree slabs. This was nothing harder than 3rd class, but a fun way to end the climb. I could have avoided climbing the slabs by following a switchbacking ramp far to the right.
On top of the peak, I took in the views and read the summit register. It was placed in 1997 and about 15 or so people had signed it. I rested on the top for a while and had some food. It seemed like the next time I looked up there were storm clouds around me. They seemed to have come out of nowhere because there was hardly a cloud in the sky a mere hour earlier. I didn’t wait much longer on top and headed down and made my way to Peak “Z Prime”. I though Peak “Z Prime” would be easier but it turned out to be a 3rd class scramble the whole way. It was sort of exposed too but very solid. It even featured a small knife edge. I had the choice of traversing on the left side along some grass ledges or directly over the top of the ridge. Well, I chose the ledges going and the tip top of the ridge on the return. I’d rank both of them class 3. I didn’t stay on the top of Peak “Z Prime” long. Just long enough for some pictures. As I was heading back, small hail started falling. I picked up the pace and skidded down the scree on Peak “Z” to the saddle then all the way back down to the tarn. By this time, the weather had turned again and was sunny and warm. I hiked along the shelf and took several nice shot of Mount Solitude and surrounding peaks. After a long slog, I was back at Secret Lake and then finally back down to Upper Boulder Lake. Since the sun was out, I put all my wet socks and boots out in the sun as I packed up.
The hike down to Boulder Lake was a bit different. Somehow, I ended up taking a slightly different trail. I noticed that I didn’t pass anywhere near the large waterfall. I realized pretty quickly that I was on a different trail. The problem with this one was that it continually faded out and I’d be in the middle of the woods with no trail. The good news was that I knew there was a trail along the creek which was a good bit below me on the left. I would start wandering towards that direction when I’d pick up another faint trail and follow it for a while. I did this for quite a while then finally started noticing some landmarks. I ended up getting back on the main trail down near the second talus field that I mentioned earlier. Although these intermittent trails weren’t as good as the one that I’d taken up, the good thing was that I somehow avoided the rock wall with the waterfall shooting through it and therefore didn’t have to down climb the steep gully and cross the raging creek. Actually, I was surprised and how fast I was moving down. I passed landmark after landmark and was finally back down to where the map showed the trail ending. Along the way, I took pictures of various landmarks; it was too dark yesterday on the way in.
It felt like I was almost home back at Boulder Lake but I realized I still had a good amount of hiking left. The most significant of course was getting back over the ridge on the Gore Range trail in my tired state. Actually, it wasn’t that bad at all and I was back at my car at a little after 4. This the most remote solo trip that I had done and I really enjoyed it.